Last week DC comics announced that they would be cancelling their longest running title, Hellblazer, presumably as part of an ongoing crusade to destroy everything I love about comics. This announcement has been met with much disappointment by comics fans as Hellblazer has constantly been one of the most creative and enduring titles of the past three decades.
Hellblazer told the adventures of John Constantine… and now half of you have stopped reading since you just realised I’m talking about the guy from that mediocre Keanu Reeves movie that came out a few years ago.
But, believe me, the movie version of Constantine (rhymes with “turpentine;” yes, the movie even managed to mispronounce the name) had about as much in common with the comics as Avatar did with Pocahontas. The general story was the same but one involved a whole lot more violence, weird sex and awesome creatures.
No, the real Constantine was something else entirely.
John Constantine was created by everyone’s favorite comic-book legend and vagrant-impersonator, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), as a guest character in “Swamp Thing”. He came up with Constantine when Swamp Thing’s artists expressed a desire to draw a character based on Sting (don’t judge, it was the ’80s). So yeah, one of comics’ most enduring and popular characters was created solely because a couple of artists working at DC were fans of The Police.
Moore, having been gifted with creative brilliance and bats**t insanity in equal measure, wasn’t content with just writing a skinny blonde dude into one of his stories. Instead he created Constantine, a punk-rock sorcerer who acted as Swamp Thing’s mystical advisor.
The character proved to be a popular one with fans but was prevented from appearing in more titles because, perhaps unsurprisingly, the bosses at DC felt that a foul-mouthed, chain smoking occultist wouldn’t fit in stories that were still supposed to be primarily for children. Luckily he was eventually given his own spin-off title, becoming one of the flagship books of the newly formed Vertigo comics, DC’s angsty, more mature younger brother.
No longer reined in by the comics code authority, Hellblazer was able to tackle much darker and more controversial subject matter, something that helped attract some of the greatest writing talent in the industry to the title. That’s no exaggeration, over it’s 24 year run the comic has been written by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Andy Diggle, Mike Carey, Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano. I don’t really know how to convey the scale of these names to non-comics fans but it would be kind of like if Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird all played for the same team…and then wrote a story about a British guy kicking the s*** out of the Devil.
These writers set out to flesh out Constantine’s story, giving him one the most awesome and f***ed-up origins in the history of comics. Born in Liverpool, John moved to London in his teens and after seeing the Sex Pistols live, decided to start his own punk rock band called Mucous Membrane. When he came across a possessed little girl while touring in Newcastle he convinced his band and some other friends of his to summon a demon of their own to fight the one in the girl.
Unfortunately this plan backfired spectacularly when the demon he summoned proved to be too powerful to control, butchering all his friends and dragging the little girl down to hell with it. The incident left Constantine so mentally scarred that he had to spend two years in a mental asylum.
Hear that, Superman? That whole “last son of a dead planet” thing ain’t looking too bad now is it?
It was storylines like this that went on to ultimately set Constantine apart from other comic-book heroes, in that he didn’t always come out on top, but he was the master of the pyrrhic victory. When Batman turns up on scene, you know that he’s going to beat the bad guy and everyone’s going to get out ok in the end. But when Constantine staggers drunkenly into a situation, there’s every possibility that he’s going to make things much worse and get everybody killed. Hanging around John couldn’t be more hazardous to his friends’ health if he was made of uranium and asbestos.
This, by the way, is the real reason why comic book fans hated the movie. They didn’t care about the producers turning a blonde, tantric rock-god into Johnny Utah. They hated it because he wasn’t enough of a badass in it.
Constantine’s appeal lies in the fact that, despite occasional good intentions, he’s always pretty much been a complete bastard. He lies, cheats, steals and uses his friends (sometimes as literal human shields). Case in point, the “Dangerous Habits” storyline, the run that the movie was based on. Years of chain-smoking Silk Cut cigarettes comes back to haunt John when he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Which is shitty news for more than the obvious reason, since the Devil has made it abundantly clear that he’s going to spend the rest of eternity coming up with new ways to torture Constantine. With the clock ticking, Constantine tries to weasel a way out of dying–or at least going to Hell.
Now, in the movie, Satan hates him because he’s been righteously sending demons back to hell for years and is eventually cured (Spoiler for a movie you have no intention of watching) when he sacrifices himself to save someone else. Also Shia LeBoeuf is involved for some reason. In the comic…things were a slightly different.
Firstly, the comic book Devil didn’t hate Constantine for being a tireless, noble fighter of demons. He wanted his heart on a plate because John had tricked him into drinking holy water and then beat the crap out of him with a wine bottle (yeah he won a bar-fight with Satan, I told you he was awesome). And he didn’t get cured by selflessly sacrificing himself to help others, he survived because he sold his soul to each of the three Lords of Hell, forcing them into a stalemate. If they fought over his soul when he died, they would have destroyed Hell in the battle, but none of them could relinquish their claim. Their only option was to heal him.
Batman can stoically face up to all the psychopathic clowns he wants, but he still won’t be able to match the balls it takes to trick the embodiments of evil into curing your cancer and then making them watch as you stroll away while flipping the bird
What also set him apart from your run-of-the-mill Kryptonian or Amazon princess is that he aged in real time. Celebrating his 35th birthday in 1988, his fortieth in 1993 and so on. This is a pretty hefty devotion to realism for a book about a guy who fights demons.
Unfortunately the one evil in the world that even Constantine couldn’t outfox was publisher meddling, with DC cancelling his Vertigo title and rebooting a younger version of the character back into the main DC universe .
I remain hopeful about the rebooted series. I mean it’s not 1988 anymore. Mainstream comics can tackle dark themes these days (although it’s unlikely we’ll see scenes like Constantine chucking an evil baby off of a cliff anymore) but I couldn’t let the classic Constantine fade away without saluting him. Because, while Superman taught me about truth, justice and the American way and Spider-man showed me that with great power comes great responsibility, Constantine taught me something else entirely: that everybody f*&ks up every now and again, the trick is to do it in as stylish a way as possible.
…also, that smoking is really, really cool.
Richy Craven is an Irish freelance writer and once beat the Devil in a game of Tetris. You can check out more of his stuff over at Cracked, A Series of Terrible Decisions or, if you like mediocre jokes about Batman and Game of Thrones, follow him on Twitter.
Richy struck a balance between ridiculousness and reality with Bat-Villains Too Lame to Be in a Dark Knight Movie and The 5 Nuttiest Real Life Superheroes